It's not as bad as it seems for Knicks

NEW YORK -- One month from now, the New York Knicks will be sitting in their locker room, preparing to play Game 3 of their first-round playoff series. And if they are sitting there tied 1-1 in that series, nobody is going to remember what's been happening this March.

So climb off the ledge and get back inside. Knock off the panic. Cool it on the doomsday hysteria.

The Knicks might seem like they are in a world of trouble, but they aren't.

And if you don't want to hear that from a sportswriter, consider this: That message is exactly the message Chauncey Billups delivered to the rest of the team in the wake of their 111-99 loss to the Orlando Magic on Wednesday night, their seventh defeat in the past eight games as they dropped one game below .500 (35-36).

"There's a light at the end of the tunnel," said Carmelo Anthony, who, like many of the Knicks, was not as downcast as one might expect from a team that seems to be sliding off a cliff. "We just need to relax, man. I think it's we're just putting a lot of pressure on ourselves. I think we're playing too tense out there on the court; everyone needs to relax and have fun.

"These times ain't going to last forever. I've been through it before, I'm sure a lot of the people in this locker room have been through it, so I'm not too concerned about it. These times are not going to last forever."

Here's the thing to remember about these new Knicks, no matter how many times they fail and falter between now and the end of the regular season: They are going to the playoffs, and they have known they are going to the playoffs since the day Anthony and Billups unpacked their bags.

So they are not playing for anything other than to develop some chemistry and cohesion, and whether they finish sixth or seventh in the conference is of little significance. There was no way they were going to move up to the fourth seed and gain home-court advantage in the first round, and there was little incentive to move up to the fifth spot because that would mean only a first-round matchup against these same Orlando Magic, who probably match up better with the Knicks than with any of the other top four teams in the Eastern Conference.

"That's not good," coach Mike D'Antoni said of the below-.500 record. "But that's not going to define the season. The pressure is only to play well. If you can't get home court, you can't get it."

D'Antoni also came right out and admitted in his first answer of the postgame news conference that Amare Stoudemire had his worst game as a Knick (a season-low 13 points on 6-for-20 shooting) because he is so tired he looked dead on his feet.

It should be noted that this was Game No. 14 in a month in which the Knicks are playing 18 games, with six sets of back-to-backs and three sets of four games in five nights.

They were supposed to have three consecutive days off next week (but instead will have to play a make-up game against Orlando at MSG on Monday), followed by one game, against the Nets, followed by another three consecutive days off March 30, April 1 and April 2.

So they still have that latter three-day break to look forward to, but until then, it's another back-to-back Friday and Saturday against Milwaukee and Charlotte, two of the teams fighting for the eighth playoff spot, before having a day off prior to playing the Magic again.

They are tired, and you couldn't really understand how tired unless you yourself spent 21 of the past 23 days going to work and taking 11 airplane flights during that time span.

"This has been a brutal month, man, with the games we're playing back to back and the travel. It's been tough, and it doesn't help that you're struggling, too. But we've got some work before that [three-day break] happens," Billups said.

Recognizing the team's fatigue, D'Antoni gave the Knicks a day off Thursday to recharge their batteries.

He undoubtedly will continue agonizing over the downward turn his team has taken, and he has to start considering some rotation changes -- especially in the fourth quarter.

Against the Magic, Anthony sat out the first 4:05 as a one-point deficit grew to eight and then took another minute or two to get in a groove (he had three of his season-high nine assists in that final 7:55).

Why can't D'Antoni run him and Stoudemire out there for the entire final 12 minutes? Especially since the Knicks need all the offense they can get, especially with the way they are playing (or not playing) fourth-quarter defense. (Down the stretch, Orlando scored on 13 of its final 15 possessions.)

Why can't he come out and announce that Ronny Turiaf is going to be his starting big man the rest of the way, rather than leaving that spot in limbo?

Why can't he come out and say Landry Fields has to become more of the player he was before the trade than he has been since the trade?

Would it be too much for him to acknowledge that not having to play for a playoff spot has removed the sense of urgency that any team needs to play close to its peak?

A little brutal honesty might ease the hysteria -- a word D'Antoni himself threw out there recently, saying he understood it.

"When you struggle, people are going to take liberties at you and take blows at you and throw bombs at the team, try to divide and conquer," Billups said. "Me, as one of the leaders, I'm going to try my best not to allow that to happen."

Which was why he told his teammates to look forward a month and think of the possibilities of making sure no one remembers what happened back in mid-March.

With one win on the road in Game 1 or 2 of the playoffs, euphoria will have replaced hysteria.

And you know what? He's right.